Church of England sidesteps government rules over multi-academy trust control

Church of England sidesteps government rules over multi-academy trust control

The Church of England is to gain overall control of a new multi-academy trust, even though nine of the 10 schools intended for the new trust are secular.

The Diocese of Newcastle’s board of education will be allowed to appoint three of the five board members of the proposed ‘Tynedale Community Learning Trust’ if consultation plans go ahead. The board will then be able to hire and fire trustees and make changes to the ethos of the trust.

This situation would diverge from current government recommendations, which state that just 25 per cent of the board should be appointed by the church if a trust only contains a minority of church schools.

In this instance, just one of the 10 schools in the trust, Ovingham First School, a Church of England voluntary-controlled school, is a faith school. The rest are secular local authority schools. All 10 are currently in a council federation together and wish to convert to a trust.

The situation echoes other conversions in which the Department for Education has approved a branch of the church to run academy trusts in which faith-ethos schools are in the minority.

According to an email between John Barrigan, a DfE official, and Richard Jolly, a parent governor at one of the local authority schools who has now resigned, the government prefers the church to appoint only a quarter of members in minority-faith MATs.

Barrigan wrote “it is the Department’s expectation that, with regards to governance in a minority church MAT, church representation should not exceed 25 per cent at member and director level”.

In circumstances where a “deviation” was proposed, the government would “expect the consultation to be extensive”, it continues.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Newcastle claimed that the governors of the other nine schools wanted the majority of board members to be appointed by the Church.

When the ‘outstanding’ Ovingham primary was asked to join the multi-academy trust, governors were presented with three options: 25 per cent church representation at member and director level in accordance with the DfE’s guidance, two church members and a third member agreed by the Diocese and governors, giving a majority, or for the church school to be left out of the MAT.

In a letter sent to parents in May, a headteacher explained why the second option had been preferred over the first. Governors wanted the church to choose the majority of the board members so directors would be “recruited on the basis of their skills and not on their links to the church”, as would be the case under the first option.

The schools would all have their ethos protected, the letter added.

But Jolly, who has two children at the schools involved, said the consultation proposals “opened the door a lot wider for the church to be involved”.

“As a parent that seems unfair. I chose to send my children to a secular local authority school, not a church school.”

However Simon Foulkes, education consultant at education solicitors firm Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, said a Memorandum of Understanding between the DfE and Church of England schools with specific guidance on voluntary-aided schools was legally understood to mean they would be allowed majority governance in a church-minority MAT.

The guidance states: “The Secretary of State accepts that Diocesan boards of education will not usually expect to see a Church of England voluntary-aided school joining an existing or new Church minority MAT” and this would only take place where “very exceptional circumstances can be shown to exist”.

“Therefore if a VA school joins an existing minority MAT, the expectation follows that it will adapt to be a church majority MAT,” said Foulkes.

Last year, the Diocese of Newcastle also took the majority of seats on the NEAT Academy Trust after a Church of England primary school was asked to join four secular schools. The move was opposed by the local MP and some parents.

A spokesperson said that the Diocese was “very clear these [models] were both simply options”.